An Ode to Phaedra
"When you are a writer and a speaker, sometimes people think you have your crap together."
Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (229)
You don't. Ask anybody in my family. Ask my girlfriend, Phaedra J. Wendler. She'll show you the bookshelf in my life where the titles of all my crap have been neatly arranged, spine up, tall and clean, all thematically catalogued.
You'll find the Pride and Prejudice over here (deadly sin #1), the Phantastes over there (deadly sins continued). Down the rest of the row you'll see the collection that includes the The Idiot (because at the tender age of 34 I keep thinking I've figured women out and I haven't, and I keep wanting to believe that my analytical skills should help me know everything I need to know about them but, God help me, I don't), Viper's Tangle (where I have the need to do what I want to do when I want to do it), Peter Shaffer's Amadeus (realizing that just because I have good ideas doesn't mean I'm the only one with good ideas or that I always get to do them), The Great Divorce (between head and heart), A Heartbreaking work of Staggering Genuis (over-confidence), Death of a Salesman (the flesh that refuses to die), Farenheit 451 (quick to flare, slow to mercy), and on and on. I've got lots of books.
Phaedra's not the kind of person to air out my dirty laundry. She's a fiercely loyal friend. She knows how to keep a confidence. But she knows a lot of the DT crapola.
The surest way to get sanctified, I figure, is to get into a relationship. God Almighty, that will teach you a lesson about sacrificial love--or in fact how poorly you do it and how little you want to do it. Dying to yourself? Well I told God that I had a good plan for how to do it.
I told him he should let me just die in a massive, spectacular, conclusive way. What would work for me is a big explosive death. Bam! And it's done. It could all happen within a very brief amount of time, preferably over the course of one day, not more, definitely not two. Let it be compact, contained, and with a clear beginning and a clear end.
It'd be the perfect way to die to my flesh. Honestly. That way I could get each fleshy issue out of the way and keep truckin'.
Mind you, it'd be a real death. It'd hurt, I'd scream and fight it and hurl curses at heaven. I would really die and it would really kill me, with all the appropriate, harrowing sensory pain. Death to the flesh is a violent and ugly thing. No getting around it.
But if I have a choice, I choose the gallows: quick, violent, and ugly. But thorough-going and quick.
I would not choose the Chinese drip death. The thought came to me yesterday as I was running through my neighborhood, as a kind of epiphany, that God wants me to die little deaths every day. Which is totally the worse kind of death to die. I hate it. I couldn't believe it. I'm fed up with little deaths. But my conscience wouldn't let me go. I knew it was true.
The only way I will grow up and become mature and true and healthy in my relationships to my family, my friends, my colleagues at work, my girlfriend, is by choosing to die every day--just a little tortuous bit by little tortuous bit.
Sanctification is like physical therapy: you can only go one day at a time and obedience to the discipline leads to greater freedom.
I can only start walking again if I choose to fight through the pain of standing. I can only run if I choose to keep saying no to all the things that would keep me from running--self-deceptions, the fear of pain, the fear of failure, hatred and bitterness at the unfairness of being in this predicament. And the only way any of this can happen is one day at a time, one step at a time, one increment at a time.
One little death at a time.
But God didn't leave me with this grim, crappy prescription. He said, "David, do you know what a bunch of little deaths add up to?"
I said, with a little tone in my voice, "I probably do, but why don't you tell me anyway."
He said, "To a big death, what you've wanted."
I said, "I know, I know." Because I do; which is the problem.
And Jesus said, without any tone in his voice, and really remarkably gentle, "I know you know and you're doing a good job. You're trying hard. I'm proud of you. Don't give up. You're a good man, David Taylor. But to become the man you know you want to become, you have to walk down into the valley of death. You can't teleport to the other side. You can't throw yourself mindlessly into a sudden butchering of your flesh. You have to walk with all your senses alert, consciously attentive to my voice and to what I'm doing and what you're dying to. You need to take responsibility for your actions. You need to take responsibility for who you are."
Growing impatient I interrupted at this point. "But I didn't ask to be me. I didn't ask to have all these problems and weaknesses. You made me. You put me in this family of mine. You let things happen to me that messed me over. So I really need you to show up and do something. I need you to heal me. I need YOU to heal me. I'm asking you; throw me a bone; do something supernatural and definitive. Help me out for crying out loud. I'm tired."
He smiled. "I understand. I understand, David. It's hard being a human. Trust me, I know. I'm fully God, yes, the infinite Omnipotent One--I know you know that--but trust me when I say that I understand how you feel. I haven't forgotten you. Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord's unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in Him. That's the old poet. And he's right. You have to keep trusting me."
I sighed, "I'm trying, Lord, I really am, but I'm getting tired. I'm so profoundly exhausted. I feel like I'm barely holding on in a number of areas of my life. I want to trust you, but I feel like I barely eek out faith and am relieved when I make it to my pillow at bedtime. I want to trust you, I do. But please help. Show me yourself. Show me something."
Ever the patient one, ever compassionate, Jesus is like that one person you've been looking for all your life who knows you--who really knows you--and who thinks you're hot stuff and awesome and killer and that the world totally needs you on this planet and he's rooting for you and knows exactly what to say to cheer you up and to get you to keep waking up at 5:30 am to put your running shoes on, because you're training for the Olympic 5K and He knows you have the capacity to win, so He keeps pushing you, He keeps encouraging you with all the rah-rahs you need, and sometimes He goes utterly silent and absent because He knows you need to grow up and you won't if you keep treating Him like a babysitter, or like a co-dependent lover, or like a predictable computer. He's not. He's alive and powerful and able to make you into a saint that could transform the face of the earth if only you kept doing what He told you to do.
Peter Kreeft once said that all of us could become great saints. Every one of us could become as holy and powerful as Mother Theresa or Billy Graham or St. Francis or St. Catherine of Sienna. And he didn't mean this in a figurative way. He meant it literally. We really could. The only reason all of us aren't this kind of saint is that, in very little ways, in the secret, hidden places of our hearts, we choose to say no, we choose to sin and to hold on to our sins. It's not a question of fame or magnitude of influence, it's just a question of complete obedience and utter faithfulness to the things He's calling you to in terms of both your internal life and your external relations.
Jesus and I walk a while in silence. It was the good kind of silence, the restful kind. I'm the kind of guy that needs the first five hours of my day to be in silence and solitude, so I'm digging this silence.
Then he says, "David, you're not going to be free by trying to take the efficient route where you get it over with and keep going. Your head's not the problem. You know that. It's your heart. And your will. And your emotions. The only way for these to get stronger, the only way for them to get integrated into the whole of your person so that you can be the man you've long wanted to be, the man I've called you to be with all the exciting adventurousness you've dreamed of is for you to practice dying to little things every day. That's it. You can do it, I know you can. Get your friends and family to help you out. Ask for help. I'll use them. And keep reading Lewis and Tolkien and Milton and McDonald. They got it right. They're describing the real world, the world you stubbornly keep believing is true. It is. It is that great. Trust me. It's that fantastic. Don't give up, David. Please don't. It'll all be worth it if you do."
And with that, he disappears.
The easiest thing in a relationship is to begin settling. I don't want that. I want to keep desiring what is best and most honorable and loving in my relationship with Phaedra. I want to keep learning how to be weak and humble. It's hard, that. It's awful. It sucks. I hate it. But my best self lies on the other side of self-denying humility; or rather it lies through it.
I wrote her a card for our one-year dating anniversary. I didn't plan for it to turn into a quasi poem, but it did. There are visual elements that won't translate into the blog, but I played with the structure and with consonance. I admit it's a strange kind of card to write. It's not a gushing 100 Things I Love About You card. But it's true. I did write a more direct note to her at the end, but I'll leave that for her eyes only.
I asked her if I could court her on August 31, 2005. On September 3 she said yes. The time in between was like a kind of purgatory.
ON THE OCCASION OF OUR 1 YR DATING ANNIVESARY
His purgatory come to an end,
He now looked upon a vast and unfamiliar
Landscape which promised to change
Him irrevocably, even bringing
Him face to face with his own
Strangeness. The journey would be
A familiar one but he would not be
Able to predict it. The woman would
Make him deaf to his past, blind to his
Mastery, which in every other arena had proved
More than reliable, dumb to his strength, and a
Mystery to the science of controlled experiences that,
Much as he might protest in the court of human opinion, led him to
Believe that he was in control. He was not. Never was.
A question that nagged him throughout, "Do I know how to love?"
Bothered and chaffed his confidence. He shipwrecked upon his
Antagonizing pride; he kept slipping off the cliffs of his own mortality,
Battering against his restless desire to know. But stop! You
Ask the wrong question. It is not to know, it is to be, and to
Become a man by being loved. She loved you. She loves you.
Angels do not question such love. They simply gaze and wonder.
Can I love is really a question of will I be loved. Yes. I
Can. With angels and saints and floating, time-traveling
Mystics carousing in the impossible, I will be loved. With all my
Might and death-defying faith I will love the woman
And finally find myself.